The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:29: “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead?” What does this mean?
One writer stated over 40 interpretations exist. Mormons practice baptism by proxy. That is, a living person is baptized in place of one who is dead. They even have done proxy baptisms for many dead U.S. Presidents. The idea is predicated on the notion that baptism is necessary for salvation and can be accessed post-mortem by proxy. This contradicts Scripture everywhere, which declares that salvation is received by grace alone through faith alone (Rom 3:21-24; Rom 4:3; Eph 2:8-9; 1 Pet 3:21, etc.).
Martin Luther believed it meant being baptized over the graves of deceased saints. John Calvin believed it referred to those who were as good as dead with a terminal illness. Most ancient church fathers believed it referred to the baptism of a living person for a professing believer who had died suddenly before receiving baptism. Two other options seem to fit the context better.
As A Testimony to Spiritually Dead Family Members
Perhaps their baptism was, in some sense, renouncing their spiritually dead families (pagan or Jewish) in hopes to prick their consciences to the gospel. I wouldn’t have understood this until I went to Dakar, Senegal. It is 96% Muslim. I spoke in a Christian church and gave a gospel call (or, invitation) for any unbelievers to receive Christ. The believers looked around, bewildered. They had never experienced a gospel call in a worship service. Later, they gathered round me and expressed: “If a person comes to our worship service, they have committed to Christ already. A Muslim who sets foot in a Christian church commits spiritual treason. His family will disown him, and sometimes have him killed. Anyone who worships here has renounced his family and the Muslim faith through water baptism.”
Their prayer is their public baptism provokes spiritually “dead” family members to follow them. This is viable, but I think it refers to something else.
Because of the Testimony of a Deceased Christian
Perhaps they were being baptized based on the faithful Christian testimony of deceased Christians: loved ones, friends, or heroes in the faith. Contextually, this makes the most sense. Paul had mentioned their deceased loved ones in verse 18. His point: “If there is no resurrection, then your loved ones have perished. You will never see them again.” He then proceeds to describe the Kingdom of God once Jesus returns. He even states the resurrected saints will be there to witness the events (vv. 24-28). Finally, he connects that thought with the word, “Otherwise” in verse 29. In other words, “Many people are coming to Christ and being baptized on behalf of the testimony of faithful Christians who predeceased them. Why would they do this if they didn’t believe they would be reunited with those Christian saints in the future Kingdom?”
I wouldn’t have understood this until I went to a tiny village in Ecuador. One of the only Christians in that small village died while we were there. They asked me to preach her funeral. I shared the gospel during the funeral. Afterward, their custom was to carry the casket from house-to-house before sealing it in a concrete vault. When the casket came to her son’s house, he draped himself over it and gave an emotional, soul-stirring testimony. He said his mother had shared the gospel with him for years; yet, he never responded. Her death made him recognize his own sin and his need for a Savior. He declared before the whole village: He desired to follow Christ as his mother did.
I don’t know if he followed through with water baptism. If he did, though, I can see how his baptism was “on behalf of” his dead mother’s witness.
This makes the most sense to me. Whatever it means, though, we must not be distracted by this. The Apostle Paul’s larger point is clear: The bodily resurrection of Christ is the backbone of the Christian faith.
On that, every true Christian agrees.
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